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Circ Res. 1999 Aug 20;85(4):338-48.

Evidence from a novel human cell clone that adult vascular smooth muscle cells can convert reversibly between noncontractile and contractile phenotypes.

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  • 1Vascular Biology Group, John P. Robarts Research Institute.


Smooth muscle cells (SMCs) perform diverse functions that can be categorized as contractile and synthetic. A traditional model holds that these distinct functions are performed by the same cell, by virtue of its capacity for bidirectional modulation of phenotype. However, this model has been challenged, in part because there is no physiological evidence that an adult synthetic SMC can acquire the ability to contract. We sought evidence for this by cloning adult SMCs from human internal thoracic artery. One clone, HITB5, expressed smooth muscle alpha-actin, smooth myosin heavy chains, heavy caldesmon, and calponin and showed robust calcium transients in response to histamine and angiotensin II, which confirmed intact transmembrane signaling cascades. On serum withdrawal, these cells adopted an elongated and spindle-shaped morphology, random migration slowed, extracellular matrix protein production fell, and cell proliferation and [(3)H]thymidine incorporation fell to near 0. Cell viability was not compromised, however; in fact, apoptosis rate fell significantly. In this state, agonist-induced elevation of cytoplasmic calcium was even more pronounced and was accompanied by SMC contraction. Readdition of 10% serum completely returned HITB5 cells to a noncontractile, proliferative phenotype. Contractile protein expression increased after serum withdrawal, although modestly, which suggested that the switch to contractile function involved reorganization or sensitization of existing contractile structures. To our knowledge, the physiological properties of HITB5 SMCs provide the first direct demonstration that cultured human adult SMCs can convert between a synthetic, noncontracting state and a contracting state. HITB5 cells should be valuable for characterizing the basis of this critical transition.

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